We rely hugely on the power of science to make judgements. We like facts, proven answers, evidence from randomised controlled studies, experiments, peer reviewed research and the like. Further, as cyclists we love data. We have our power meters and heart rate monitors: we measure metrics on cadence, speed, drag coefficients and rolling resistance and share it, ad nauseum, on social media. You’d think by now physiologists, sports doctors and sports scientists would have combined all the data with all the science and come up with a simple answer to the ultimate question: how do I ride faster?
Despite there being no evident shortage of sports scientists, so far, nothing, nada, stony silence. Well, I suppose that’s not entirely true, a few sports doctors have come up with an answer. Some of those guys are now in prison and some more should be because the simple answer is taking performance enhancing drugs. However, the fact remains no single, ubiquitous, optimal and legal training plan, regime or session has been identified whose implementation will make you the best you can be.
The reason for this is the ultimate answer can only be unlocked if the ultimate question is asked. To formulate the question with any hope of getting a cogent answer, you're gonna have to be specific. How fast do you want to ride? How fast are you now? When do you want to ride faster, over what distance and in what environment? How much time have you got to train? How old are you? What do you weigh? How much money have you got? Only when you’ve answered these questions can the truth be revelled!
Assuming you answered these and many other why, how, where, when questions, the ultimate answer is..…wait for it…... It depends! I know you want to punch me in face now but bear with me.
'...punch me right in the face...'
'It depends’ because there are limits to how much faster or fitter you can get. And, in truth, it doesn't matter a jot how much money you've got. So, I figure if sports science can't give us a simple answer, the least it can do is explain why not.
A 1977 study by Bill Hickson took 8 college athletes and trained them over 10 weeks for 6 days per week using a series of 2 minute on, 2 minute off bike intervals at Z5 (VO2 max) and a 40 min flat out run on alternate days. All the subjects showed a huge 44% average linear increase in fitness over the test period.
By way of contrast, a later 1999 study (Bouchard et al) looked at 500 college students and over a period of 20 weeks and prescribed them a moderately intense exercise regime of 3 training sessions per week of 30-50 mins duration of aerobic exercise at 55 -75% of VO2 max. After collating the results, it showed the average increase in fitness was in the order 10-15% measured by a VO2 max test.
So, the first part of the ultimate answer is, by following a structured training plan you could get something between a 10% – 44% increase in fitness depending on how long you’re doing it for and how brutal it is. If you're following a plan, you’re likely to be looking at a 10% improvement. Arguably if you armed yourself with a little knowledge, you could implement this yourself without the help of a coach. If your coach is prescribing you the plan i.e. one tailored to you, then over time, you should be looking to do a good bit better than 10% otherwise you’re probably wasting your money. But there are limits. And the reasons behind the unsatisfyingly vague ‘it depends’ answer about how much you will gain will be affected by...
Your starting point: If you’re already super fit, the right coach might find you that extra fraction and that may be the difference between winning a championship or finishing 4th. With limited ‘headroom’ to improve, you’re not going to find anything like a 44% physiological gain but the difference between winning a medal or just missing the podium may well be down to psychological, technical and tactical improvements. Conversely, if you’re starting from scratch or a low base, you might find more than 50% over time. To put that into context, for a normal sized bloke on an aero bike, a 10% increase in FTP from 240w to 264w could make you a sub 23 mins 10 mile time trialist after previously being in the 25 minute range. A 44% increase to an FTP of 346w would put you in the top 2% of male cyclists, maybe close to the professional ranks.
Your resilience: The Hickson study comes with a massive caveat. The results are much quoted as an example of the effect training can have but, after showing such startling increases in fitness, at the end of program the 8 candidates were asked if they would like to continue. They all said no. The training was physiologically and psychologically unsustainable. So, yeah, maybe we could boost your FTP significantly in 8 weeks but the risk is you’d never get on a bike again. A good training plan has to be sustainable and fit around your life.
'...a good training plan has to be sustainable. Now stop punching me in the face...'
Your biology: Your age, resources in terms of time and equipment, nutrition, sleep, your sporting and injury history etc are all going to have an impact on your response to training. Physiological studies tend to be carried out on young men, often college athletes from a higher socioeconomic group so health and nutrition tend to good. The data for other demographic groups is poor with large scale studies on women being a notable omission. Whilst there is no evidence to suggest training responses are different in percentage increase terms, there isn't any to suggest they are the same either. Every individual is, well, individual and a training plan needs to be tailored to your needs, not those of a well fed 22 year old American student athlete. Unless of course...
Your genetics: The genetic component and heritability of physiology is often overstated but it exists. The Bouchard study was primarily aimed at establishing heritability as it used family groups to see if there was a genetic component to fitness. There is, something in the order of 30-40%. Interestingly, 1% (5 out of the 500) of the group turned out to be what are known as ‘high responders’. These guys showed huge increases in fitness, well over the 44% seen in the Hickson study.
Turning momentarily to this tiny group of the genetically blessed, Louis Passfield, a highly respected physiologist who worked with British Cycling from the 1990s and up to the Beijing Olympics studied the history of the hour record from Merckx up to Boardman. He calculated riders capable of holding the record were 250% fitter than your normal geezer. In short, in order to hold 460w for 60 minutes you must be within the 1% band of genetic outliers Bouchard identified. Without it, even with the best training plan in the world, you’re never going to get anywhere near it. Try it if you like…
Your goals: Riders rarely have a goal of just increasing fitness from x to y. It’s all about getting faster over a certain distance, completing an endurance event, winning a race or just being more comfortable on the bike. This is why a good coach can help you get what you want out of your cycling. This relies on the thoughtful, well judged implementation of physiological knowledge appropriate to you. Physiological knowledge on its own is not enough. Your coach should be the difference between a plan for anybody and the plan for you. The studies referred to use a plan – everybody followed the same exercise prescription. A coach should be helping you to define one that is tailored to you and adjusts dependant on your response to it. And remember, there are at least three other dimensions to your cycling – technical, tactical and psychological. Physiology is not everything, you need to address all these equally critical elements to ride faster.
As a coach, my interest is in helping you get the most out of your cycling irrespective of your age, sex, sporting history or genetics. I hope providing some context around why answering the ultimate question is more difficult than it seems might help when you think about the best way to take your training forwards.
Rich Smith is expecting a lot of shit for writing this from current and aspiring sport scientists. But his shoulders are provenly un-aero. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach and a very mature psychology student. Before upsetting sports scientists, he spent 30 years upsetting people in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
Lots of us have found ourselves confined to quarters and, unsurprisingly, the sale of turbo trainers (not sure about rollers) has gone through the roof, last I heard, up by 977%. If you’ve found yourself locked down, restricted or in need of digging out your turbo after recently confining it to the back of the garage, here’s some tips to help you through.
Decrease intensity: Unless you’re a double-hard masochist, most turbo work is high intensity short duration stuff. Now might not be the time for doing this exclusively. Plus, if you’ve been increasing the intensity of your training whilst reducing volume in anticipation of racing, an event or just the better weather, don’t just press on. There’s limit to the amount of time you can spend at Z5 before it becomes physiologically and psychologically unsustainable and possibly damaging. IF we get to race this season it’s going to be a few months away, I’d suggest you need to consider re-basing your training. This applies whether you can still get outside a bit or not.
Pace yourself: We might be doing this for quite a while so remember in Training Peaks terms, a single 100 TSS turbo session is the physiological equivalent of a 25 mile time trial. Under normal circumstances you wouldn’t want to be doing three of these a week so be careful about intensity and things like Zwift racing. Do it but be careful how often. Months of this is going to get unsustainable quickly and consistency of training is vital to maintaining your fitness for when the zombie apocalypse is over. When we can see light at the end of the tunnel, then you can turn it back up to 11.
Variety: Use rollers (see instructional videos here), change bikes (you can bend a bike using it on the turbo, especially if you do out of the saddle efforts), get the track bike on the rollers, change hand positions, wear your Fez collection, anything. Bear in mind you’ll bollox your rear tyre on the turbo so maybe put an old one on for the duration. There’s lots of ways of mixing it up so, if you get stuck, get in touch.
Use the time wisely: Practice riding in TT position, use leg speed sessions - great for rollers but no reason why you can’t do them on the turbo. Do some Independent Leg Training (ILT) for strength workouts – much underrated and great for pedalling efficiency as well as power and a decent substitute for squats if you’re missing the gym.
Stretch and core: Many cyclists could do with increasing flexibility, particularly hamstrings. Time is often used an excuse for not doing as much stretching as we could – that’s gone right out of the window. Get your core sessions sorted (see above for lack of excuses). There’s loads of stuff you can do without gym equipment to improve core strength.
Active recovery: The day after a hard session, 20 mins Z1 on the turbo, core, stretch, tea – the job’s a good ‘un. Many of us miss these vital sessions because getting some kit on for 20 mins seems like a waste of time. It isn’t, it really isn’t. And anyway, you've haven't got anything else to do innit.
Track and use your data: More than sharing data on social media or just recording it, use it to reflect on what you’ve done in the last week and what you plan to do next week. Make some notes about how a session felt, what you found super hard, what was easy, what was deathly boring. This way you can find what really works for you and adapt the sessions. FTP tests are like routine dental visits - unpleasant but essential, if you're not using power measurement there are other 'old skool' benchmark tests you can use. Track your fitness but, for once. don't fret if the figures don't look like a graph presented at a sales conference, a 'holding pattern' might be what you need for the duration.
Endurance rides: Don’t try to replace a 3 hour Sunday ride with 3 hours on the turbo, your soul will leave your body (probably via your arse), never to return. You can do the physiological equivalent of longer endurance rides by the judicious use of sweetspot training in about a third of the time, you just need to know how much, how often and how to make subtle changes to your power parameters to get the best out of them.
Frustrated at how unfair this all is? If you’re pissed off, frustrated or angry about the time you’ve put in to your training over winter and the inability to put it to good use now the racing season should be on us, first, remember time spent training is NEVER wasted. It's an investment in you and, if you have to spend some time off the bike, your fitness won't have disappeared, it'll just be hiding and you'll find it soon enough. Secondly, if you are going nuts, read this.
The great outdoors: If you can still get outside, ride alone, sort your pick up options if you have a complete mechanical fail, maybe ride multiple circuits closer to home rather than a super long ride. Keep your distance from others out there taking exercise and wash your kit (all of it, gloves, everything) with biological shizzle when you get home. Above all, follow NHS advice. The Chief Medical Officer knows more than some random melt on Twitter.
If you want any informal advice, a chat about your training or just to discuss some ideas about what to do, drop me a line here or give me a call. These are strange and challenging times and we need to look out for each other.
Rich Smith has a rocky relationship with his turbo but it trying to learn to love it once more. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
Frustrating, disappointing, upsetting, the list goes on. After a long wet winter, the racing season had just started, events were being scheduled, the diaries filling up and BOOM!... everything cancelled. As Meatloaf once said ‘All Revved up with no place to Go’.
Here's a few headspace things that may help.
Time spent training is NEVER wasted: Your training is an investment in your physical health and mental well-being. Your goal maybe to race or compete but part of the reason for a goal is to keep you motivated, committed and your training on track – sometimes the journey is as important as the destination.
Perspective: Remember we ride for fun. It’s not life and death, but events unfolding out there now really are. It's made me get some perspective about how fortunate I am to be healthy enough to train and race at my modest level. I'm an intensive care veteran so standing upright and breathing without a machine is a bonus for me and I suspect you'll all have your own shit-nasty experiences to relate to. There’s nothing like having something you love taken away to make you appreciate it. Let’s look forward to getting back to riding and, when we do, value it a little more.
Re-frame your emotions: It would be inhuman not to feel irritation, frustration and anger at what’s unfolding around us but it’s unhealthy to stay in that hole for very long. What’s happening is unfair, but then so is life. The rider you regularly put 10 minutes in to probably thinks it’s unfair you’re faster, fitter and better looking than they are. Suck it up buttercup. Unfairness is ultimately a building block of evolution so it’s fine not to like it but you might as well recognise its existence. If it helps, set yourself a time limit for allowing yourself to be pissed off, then move on. A little bit of self-talk may help as a reminder of what you’ve achieved, who you really are and how important it is to focus emotional energy on constructive progress. We can't control the situation unfolding around us be we can control our reaction to it - it's our choice.
Set some new goals: If your goals revolved around timings, dates and events have been torpedoed, don’t leave them hanging around. Adjust, move or re-set them quickly and ensure they are in your control to achieve, not reliant upon the action of others. Identify the next opportunity.
'...Every Saturday night I felt the fever grow... All revved up with no place to go...' From 'Bat out of Hell'. Written by Jim Steinman, sung (loudly) by Meatloaf
Use your training time effectively: At the time of writing in the UK you can still ride outside on your own – not a privilege extended to some of our European friends. Be careful, but there’s nothing to stop you getting out there for a ride. In fact, the case for 'state mandated exercise' is an easy one to make - it helps prevent us from putting pressure on the NHS by staying physically healthy and psychologically it helps stop us from going nuts. I guess we should just ensure we don’t take the piss by riding in groups and observe the social distancing rules because there's a lot of families and people on shed bikes out there right now.
Physiologically you might want to think about going in to a holding pattern by build a higher base and being ready to ‘peak’ later. Right now, a lot of my riders were/are making the switch from the preparation to the pre-competition phase with lower volume but higher intensity sessions aimed at racing. If you’re in the same boat, it might be worth thinking about putting another ‘build’ phase in to increase your aerobic endurance by balancing volume and intensity around sweetspot and FTP. It should mean when you do get to deploy your Z4 and Z5 you’re going to be putting out even more watts for longer you total machine.
If the thought of training at all in these strangest of times is too much, or 'delivering the plan' seems utterly pointless (and it might, particularly if you're trying to push yourself hard), knock it back, just go and have a pedal for an hour when you feel like it. It's likely your fitness will have built up over a long time, you might lose a bit of top end but you'll get it back soon enough when you need it.
Stay strong. Stay safe.
Rich Smith was a big Meatloaf fan when he was 11. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property.
I spent quite a lot on my childhood playing bikes. I have memories of jumping off planks propped up with bricks in my very young years and then, still under 10, riding a 3 speed Raleigh ‘racer’ all over the place practicing skids and wheelies. I could never do much of a wheelie, still can’t, but that didn’t stop me practicing.
Before I get too misty eyed about the whole thing, I do remember seeing my next door neighbour catastrophically failing to jump an up-ended oil barrel on his Raleigh Chopper and I suspect it was only his youth that prevented an impromptu gear shifter enabled castration. Who the hell thought putting a gear lever between your legs on a bicycle was a good idea?
I’m prompted to write something down about 'playing bikes' because I’m running a skills session for novice bike racers next month. One of my greatest coaching pleasures is getting the cones, chalk, whistle and clip board out and doing some cycling skill coaching – particularly group riding skills. I’ve never come across anybody, no matter how experienced, who hasn’t learned something from having a crack at this. As an adult, you’re not allowed to just ‘play’ on your bike are you? You can’t just get it out of the garage and do some skids in the drive - the neighbours will think you’re a right knob. And that (finally, I hear you say…) is my point. If you’ve come to cycling later you might have missed the ‘play’ part and that’s the bit where you learn a lot of fundamental bike handling skills - how to stay on it and how far you can push it before you’re not on it. Getting a feel for that grey area between being the pilot of your machine or simply the passenger in an environment when you’re not going to be rolled into the tarmac by a passing truck is a useful confidence builder.
If you've got a bit of skills gap or you're not confident in riding close to others, you can put a lot of this right by getting on to a traffic free circuit and doing some skill work with a group of similarly motivated riders. Group riding is arguably the most essential skill set for a cyclist to master, it makes you more confident, safer, faster, more efficient, more relaxed and fundamentally ‘less shouted at’ by others you ride with.
So, call round for your mate and see if he or she fancies going out playing bikes or come and join me at a skills coaching session.
Rich Smith has lost many lumps of skin out playing bikes, favouring his left elbow to land on. He has coached the GB Transplant Cycling team for 10 years, is a British Cycling qualified Level 3 coach, a mature psychology student and has 30 years’ experience working in senior roles for Barclays, HSBC, British Waterways and National Grid Property. He still can't do a decent wheelie.
The ramblings of a cycling coach...